The smell hits her first. It’s rancid, stale, and strong, and, as Angela Hodgeman enters the sophomore’s single dorm room, she sees the mason jars. They are everywhere—stuffed under the Twin XL standard issue bed, packed onto the birch wood windowsill, spilling out of the walk-in closet. And, they are full of urine.
It’s only her second or third year as Coordinator for Undergraduate Housing at Princeton University, and she is suddenly wondering if she has stumbled into the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Aviator, in which the protagonist, afflicted with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, stores his own urine in jars.
“I remember thinking to myself, that’s it. This can never happen again. I need to be more out there,” Hodgeman remembers in her meticulous office, almost ten years later.
To reach her office, trek to the southwestern corner of Princeton’s campus to New South, a monolithic gray structure built of seven cinderblock stories. Enter the lime green lobby; take the elevator to the fifth floor. Turn right through the glass door labeled “Housing” in subtle white Arial font and turn left past the lobby where two women sit far from the service counter at computers.
Enter her office, where she sits, in front of a set of 50 walkie-talkies, arranged neatly into a five by ten grid, and beside a bulletin board with photos of her mother, Sue, and her long-time boyfriend, Johnny, arranged in perfect columns. (Apparently, assistant Kathy Ludman reports, Hodgeman even organizes her assistants’ desks when they are out of town, placing sticky notes just so.) Back in her office, there is a blown-up framed portrait of Princeton’s campus map and several framed, high-resolution photographs of Princeton’s Gothic arches.
Seated in a leather chair with the gray, October sky painted behind her, Hodgeman wears a starched, satin white button-down, intricately knotted at the bust and tucked under a gray blazer. Her long brown hair is pulled back in a low ponytail, and a necklace with delicate, golden “A” and “H” coins hangs from her neck.
Of everything that Hodgeman has seen the past ten years, that urine collection was the strangest. Clearly, Hodgeman remembers, that was a case of mental illness that required more strident work on her part. Usually, her job, now called Manager of Undergraduate Housing, keeps her locked to the phone, fielding calls from parents, either upset with their child’s housing assignment, or concerned with a living condition—bedbugs, noise, an ant infestation. Sometimes, they offer her bizarre bribes (which she always rejects, in the interest of fairness) to game the system—like the time a parent offered her a spot on a television show in exchange for a better dorm, one with more square footage. She politely declined. Otherwise, she sits at her Dell computer, managing housing assignments, working with the online databases, managing facilities.
Every so often, she offers housing talks to undergraduates alongside Dean Maria Flores Mills, her good friend. For the first five years, these made her incredibly nervous; she almost threw up before each one. “Right before we present, I know she’s sweating bullets…which is odd because she does it very well,” Flores Mills reports by phone, laughing in a deep register.
(Growing up, Hodgeman would not even open her Christmas presents in front of her family—too much pressure.)
That she is rarely face-to-face with students is something she regrets.
“I don’t think a lot of people know who I am,” she says.
Ask her about her own college experience at St. Lawrence University, a liberal arts school of 2400 undergraduates located in Canton, NY, and thirty minutes south of the Canadian border by car, and she’ll express different regrets—regrets have to do with deciding to attend the first college that approached her.
Not many kids from North Country Senior Unified High School, District 22, in Newport, VT, went to college. Out of every ten people, Hodgeman recalls, maybe three went on to community college, or the University of Vermont, or, once in a blue moon, a “reach” college like Swarthmore. Nobody else in her family had gone to college: her mom, Sue, worked in retail at Jay Peak Resort, the local ski lodge, and her father, Kevin, as a dairy farmer.
So, when St. Lawrence recruited Hodgeman to play on their women’s basketball team, she “just sort of went with it.”
“I think I would’ve gone somewhere,” Hodgeman suggests, speaking about her decision to accept St. Lawrence’s recruitment offer back in 1995. “I would’ve gone West Coast or maybe even abroad … I didn’t really give myself the opportunity.” Perhaps, this regret comes from her current vantage point—in that she orchestrates the housing arrangements for over 5,000 Princeton students and in that her office quite literally looks over Princeton’s beautiful Gothic campus, also captured in the framed photos positioned, just so, on her office walls.
At St. Lawrence, she “just sort of” majored in psychology, the field, Hodgeman jokes, you choose when you do not know what to study. After four years, she moved to Boston to work at Jack Morton, a production company, where she helped book Cher at the Vegas product launch of the first Gillette Razor. Laid off two years in, she “somewhat randomly” moved to Philadelphia in August 2002 to work as a resident director at Cabrini College, where she completed her master’s degree in Organizational Leadership in August 2004. Listening to her talk about her early adult life, she speaks as if it happened to her, inexplicably.
But even if early adult life was somewhat dislocated, her childhood in Lowell, VT, certainly equipped her with a special brand of farm-bred resilience.
Lowell, VT, a place that gets only as hot as 80 degrees in the summer but as cold as negative 30 below in the winter, is part of the Northeast Kingdom (NEK), a region reported in 2010 by Yankee Magazine as second favorite romantic and third favorite family getaway in all of New England. This probably has to do with the area’s successful ski and summer resort industry, of which Jay Peak Resort, at which Hodgeman’s mother has worked “ever since [she] can remember,” overseeing its growth from a “mom-and-pop shop” to its current valuation of over 12 million dollars, is a chief player.
Yet, according to the 2010 census, over 17.5 percent of the NEK population lives below the poverty line.
It’s 4:30am in the spring, and a high-school-aged Hodgeman has just awoken. It is a school day, but she is up before the sun to do chores for her father. Beside her sisters and brothers, wordless, she trudges up into the grassy, rolling fields, searching for the milking cows with her brothers and sisters.
When their father first obtained the milking cows, some of them were rowdy, drifting off, getting lost. Now, though, they’ve been conditioned to the routine of grazing and returning to their pen. Still, every now and then, one wanders off. It can be fun to head into the fields with her siblings to find a wayward cow—a kind of adventure.
Chores done, it’s time for a quick shower before the long 45-minute bus ride to school along VT-100N.
At school, Hodgeman drifts between friend groups. Unlike a lot of her classmates, she participates in North Country’s college curriculum, meaning she neither takes home economics classes nor studies in the auto body shop. Basketball practice: Hodgeman slips on baggy maroon and electric blue uniforms emblazoned with a white, geometric hawk. The 45-minute bus ride home. Chores. Homework. Bed.
“Over and over…7 days a week, 365 days a year,” Hodgeman says, meaning this schedule on school days, and exclusively farmhand chores on weekends. Kevin Hodgeman more or less forced each of his kids into a near full-time job, his daughter suggests. She says slowly, “There was certainly some resentment there.”
Sue Hodgeman, who divorced Kevin when Angela was fifteen and only moved recently to a home closer to town, would be the first to say, her daughter is sure, “God, I wish we’d changed this earlier.” Moving closer to town would have unlocked a lot of opportunities: Sue’s children would have been invited to more childhood birthday parties, and her kids would have been involved in carpools (a lifesaver for a family with both parents working full-time jobs). And, Sue could have attended her daughter’s basketball games.
“Who knows?” Angela says of her parents’ divorce. Maybe it was that they just got married too young. It happens a lot in and near Lowell, Hodgeman says. Kids get married right out of, and sometimes even in, high school. Plus, Hodgeman adds, tensions rise when folks are struggling financially, and the Hodgeman’s—living off of retail and farming wages—certainly were struggling.
Later, Sue married a “fantastic” man named Bob. “That’s who my family is now: my mom, my stepdad, and his extended family.” They are whom Hodgeman visits four times a year, both up in Vermont and down in Florida. She has not spoken to her father since she was fifteen.
Even now, in her position at Princeton, Hodgeman must deal with different brands of resentment daily. Complaints are a thing she is well equipped to handle—the result of a tough, Vermont farm upbringing. Dean Flores Mills says that Hodgeman must “tell a lot of people a lot of things they don’t want to hear.”
However, sometimes student complaints bother Hodgeman. When Hodgeman speaks about what Flores Mills has termed the “allergy draw”—in which students use their “allergies” to enter the Special Needs Housing Draw to leverage a better room—she sighs heavily, her voice low and aspirated.
“When you see students complaining about maybe having an allergy, and here you’re trying to accommodate somebody who is quadriplegic or has cystic fibrosis, that is very difficult for me. You have to kind of sit here and understand that one’s problem to them is just as important as the other student,” Hodgeman says. “Sometimes, I have to check myself.”
Parents phone in, upset that they are obligated to foot the same housing bill despite their child’s small square footage, or inferior view. Students stride into the Housing office in April, vastly upset, to report an ant infestation that began in September. “At that point,” Hodgeman says, “eradicating the ants in the room doesn’t satisfy the problem because it’s a frustration they’ve lived with the entire year.” Hodgeman deals with people at their most desperate and resolves problems that have no tangible fix.
She has even heard of wealthy students paying their roommates to move out. In that situation, the payment is substantial enough for the student to cover the cost of off-campus housing and still make a profit. Hodgeman, whose mother worked every day in the ski lodge, lacing up tourists’ boots to keep the divorced family afloat, exhales. “That’s life.”
Yet, Hodgeman says, “If you were going to ask me if I have regrets, I wouldn’t necessarily say regrets, because I think that everything that happens to you shapes who you are.” St. Lawrence gave her lifelong friends, a great education, and brought her to Princeton—where she happened upon Johnny, her long-time boyfriend, the “old-fashioned way,” in Princeton Sports Bar.
When the interview is over, Hodgeman will smile at you and shake your hand with a firm grip. And, after you have left her immediate office, when she thinks you are out of sight, she will bend down to straighten the chair you left askew, somewhat off-center.